Tech Talk Pre-Intermediate review

Vicki Hollett and John Sydes

Student’s Book, Workbook, Teacher’s Book, Class CDs 

First of all, I should admit that I turned to this book more in desperation than hope. It did seem to offer the chance to stop teaching business terms to people who had no idea what they were in their own language and an escape from teaching presentation and negotiation skills to students who spent most of their working life walking round a factory or chemical plant with a clip board and hard hat. On the other hand, the idea of a book of technical English overwhelmingly shouted ‘dull dull dull’ to me.

The author of this book was certainly aware of my trepidations when she wrote it and tries her best to add a little spice to the subject with pictures of three legged tights (explaining defects) and flying cars (making comparisons), and texts on James Bond gadgets (explaining how things work) and a man who accidentally floated into the sky in his deckchair (explaining what happened). Many of these examples are real stories or genuine products. The workbook has the occasional crossword and interesting texts and pictures to make homework less of a strain, and the teacher’s book offers 21 game ideas in an appendix. The introduction to the teacher’s book also offers useful tips on getting technical English students up and moving around, and giving them physical objects such as real tools to use in the classroom.

Having said all that, it isn’t all fun and games. The book opens with students reading about what a field service engineer does and the midpoint unit starts with a listening on flammability tests on fabrics. Throughout, the book works its way through an awful lot of technical vocab- such as ‘machine parts vocab’ (pulley, cam etc.), ‘malfunction adjectives’ (flat, stiff, burnt out etc.) and ‘control verbs’ (rotate etc.). The grammar syllabus ties in some fairly standard Pre Intermediate stuff (such as countable and uncountable nouns) with things they might be covered later with a general English class such as Past Tense Passives. It also spends a lot of time on things that might get little space in a general English book, such as measurements and giving instructions.

The book is divided into 21 chapters of 4 pages each, plus 2 pages of review after every 3 units. Example unit headings are ‘How do you do it?’ and ‘What’s the system?’ Each unit has a good mix of skills and covers quite a lot of functional language, for example meeting people, reporting defects, telephoning and lots of work on modal verbs. The book ends with 16 pages of pairwork activities (quiz questions, information gap activities etc.), a list of irregular verbs and full tapescripts.

After a brief introduction, the teacher’s book shows you how to use all this material unit by unit, with 4 pages of information and instructions per unit of the students’ book. The instructions are easy to follow and detailed without being overlong, and anyway it is usually quite obvious how to teach each two page spread of the students’ book just by looking at it. The difficulty lies in tying that material together or splitting it up with classes that don’t easily fit into the pattern of two pages per class, as well as providing warmers and fillers for each lesson. For example, in my two-hour classes I could usually cover more than two pages but less than a whole unit and so ended up having to provide a lot of supplementary material. In my 45 minute classes I generally found that I could either pad out just one page or rush through two. The teacher’s book does have plenty of suggestions for extra activities, though. As with the topics, texts etc that I mentioned above, the supplementary ideas are a mixture of the serious (e.g. analysing the language by stress pattern with the students) and more fun (e.g. turning skim reading tasks into races). There are also suggestions on how to include the game ideas in the appendix, e.g. ‘Chinese Whispers’ and ‘Hangman’, with particular units. Most of the game ideas are -known, but a slightly more original idea in the appendix is having students designing their own robots.

The teacher’s book also explains technical language that the teacher might not understand, for example ‘an acute angle’. Although I have a scientific background myself, there were quite a few times when I had to refer to the teacher’s book to check the answers, at which time I found it quite easy to refer to quickly. This suggests to me that in places the book is trying too hard to distinguish itself from business and general English books by providing specifically technical vocab when more general stuff might have been more useful. In general, though, the book makes a good choice of the grammar, functional language and vocabulary that people would need to talk about technical matters. Much of the vocabulary is, of course, specific to one or another technical area, but the topics themselves are general enough that you can often adapt them to the area of business that your students are in. This takes some doing when they work for chemical distribution or pharmaceutical companies rather than engineering ones, and generally I found the amount of planning time necessary to adapt the materials to make it useful and interesting for my specific groups of students was quite high- although as the students have technical training or a scientific bent they generally also have an interest in technical topics that are not directly relevant to their present jobs.

Overall, this book is not nearly as dry as I feared it might be but not nearly as relevant to the language my students need as I had hoped. Part of this is more a fault of the whole area of technical English being new rather than due to this book. For example, as there are no internationally accepted technical English exams available my students will continue being forced to take the Business English-focused TOEIC exam to show their progress and this book won’t help them much with that. The lack of supplementary materials such as photocopiable worksheets that could tie in with these topics is also not the fault of the author of this book, although some of these being provided in the teachers’ book might have helped. I do feel, however, that the author needed to think more carefully about not just what people in technical jobs do in their jobs and are interested in, but how they are most likely to use English. For all the students that I have used or would think about using such a Technical English book for, the areas they use English for are, in order of amount of time used per week:

(1) Communicating in the classroom (for example telling the teacher and class about your weekend or swapping cultural information)

(2) Reading technical manuals and specifications

(3) Receiving emails

(4) Writing emails

(5) Telephoning.

While such skills are just as difficult to make interesting as ‘Attachments’ (Unit 17 in this book), I think the relevance of such materials to a wide range of students would have provided more of the boost that I felt my students needed after several years of study.

I would highly recommend this book for pre-experience students. I imagine it would also work well for people in engineering companies, especially those where they often speak to people in English. For people in other technical companies, especially those who communicate more often at a distance by email etc, a more tailored and/ or skills-based approach might work better. There is certainly, however, a lot of material in here that is useful for many different types of ESP classes, and the whole book might well provide a good framework around which you can build your personal approach to almost any Technical English course. It is certainly an improvement on choosing a Business English book just because your students work in a business- which has been too often the approach to ESP classes in schools I have worked at over the years.